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22nd Oct 2021

Von der Leyen concedes mistakes in vaccine rollout

  • The EU will launch a new network of clinical trials to help the European Medicine Agency speed up the review of vaccines, Ursula von der Leyen told MEPs (Photo: European Parliament)

The European Commission admitted on Wednesday (10 February) mistakes were made during the bloc's approval and rollout of vaccines, but argued lessons were learned in the process.

The admission came amid a wave of criticism over the slow pace of immunisation programmes in member states.

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The bloc has so far administrated a vaccine to 17 million people, nearly four percent of its population, compared to 66 percent in Israel, 19 percent in the UK and 13 percent in the US.

"We are not where we want to be today in the fight against the virus," commission president Ursula von der Leyen told MEPs on Wednesday.

"We were late with approval. We were too optimistic about mass production. And perhaps we were also too confident that the orders would actually be delivered on time," she conceded.

The chief of the EU executive also said that the bloc had "underestimated the difficulties of mass production" and that mistakes were also made when the export control mechanism was introduced - which initially would have triggered a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

"I deeply regret that," she said, adding that the commission would do its utmost to protect peace in Northern Ireland.

The EU will launch a new network of clinical trials to help the European Medicine Agency speed up the review of vaccines and a "task force" to ramp up jab production, von der Leyen said.

For her part, EU health commissioner Stella Kyriakides defended the EU common approach to vaccines, acknowledging shortcomings and unexpected problems.

"We could have done [things] different and even better," she said.

'Key decisions were right'

Most MEPs backed the collective approach to vaccination of von der Leyen, although some far-right lawmakers argued that the commission's strategy was a "failure" - calling for von der Leyen's resignation.

"Not everything was perfect in the last months. [But] the key decisions were right," said Manfred Weber, the chairman of the centre-right European People's Party, who defended restricting exports until better cooperation with the UK is granted. Weber's support is significant, as the German MEP was frontrunner to become commission president before von der Leyen landed the job.

However, the leader of the Socialist & Democrats, Spanish MEP Iraxte García, insisted that "fiasco, catastrophe and disaster" are phrases that "ring very true to citizens".

García also called for more transparency, arguing that the delays of the deliveries of the AstraZeneca vaccines have caused "disappointment" and "mistrust".

"A lot of public money has been invested [in vaccines] and we need to know and see what is being done with this money," she said.

The EU has invested €2.7bn in the rapid development and research of the vaccines with six companies, securing up to 2.3 billion doses for Europeans.

Hungarian liberal MEP Katalin Cseh said that von der Leyen's strategy to avoid scrutiny from parliament and media has been "a recipe for disaster".

Most MEPs welcomed von der Leyen's announcement of a new working group between the commission and the parliament (a request by Renew Europe), which aims to boost intra-institutional cooperation and accountability of vaccines purchases.

'Big Pharma' worries

Meanwhile, the co-president of the Greens, MEP Ska Keller, urged the commission to explore all the ways to ramp up production globally, arguing that the bloc has a responsibility beyond its borders.

"While the rich countries are buying up vaccines and fighting over who gets doses first, some regions of the world are left behind, getting their shots with delays of years. That is a real catastrophe," said Keller.

"Intellectual property and bureaucratic barriers should not stand in the way of ensuring a more rapid equal distribution globally," she added, urging the EU executive to consider the legal leeways foreseen under the World Trade Organization's rules.

This idea is also supported by the S&D and the left-wing party in the parliament.

Speaking to von der Leyen directly, the co-president of the Left, MEP Manon Aubry, asked: "How could the European Commission accept to just lie down when dealing with the pharma companies?"

"We are able to impose incredible restrictions on our citizens' freedoms, but we are completely unable to impose restrictions on Big Pharma," she said, referring to AstraZeneca's failure to meet contractual obligations.

EU gets vaccines boost amid fears over uneven global supply

Pharmaceutical companies will increase their supply to member states with millions of additional doses, after a heated dispute over delayed deliveries. Meanwhile, the bloc's new control mechanism on vaccine exports faces global criticism amid fears of 'vaccine nationalism'.

EU-AstraZeneca row flares up after vaccines shortfall

"The view that the company is not obliged to deliver because we signed a 'best effort agreement' is neither correct nor acceptable," said EU health commissioner Stella Kyriakides, after the company's CEO tried to justified delayed deliveries to the EU.

EU fraud agency warns governments on vaccine scams

OLAF said fraudsters may offer to sell large quantities of vaccines, deliver a sample in order to pocket the first advance payment - and then vanish with the money, or deliver fake vaccines.

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I love the EU - but the vaccine strategy is a fiasco

In my opinion, the contracts Europe negotiated with the pharmaceutical companies were extremely unbalanced. Precise on pricing and liabilities but weak and vague on supply and timing, and with escape routes to the contractual obligations of the pharmaceutical companies involved.

EU Commission tightlipped on Hungary recovery-plan decision

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